My 15 year old cousin Marie died in a car accident in 1977 and my aunt, now 92 continues to grieve her every single day. I remain impressed that she gets out of bed, has a lively sense of humor, and continue to love life.
About five years after Marie’s death my aunt was going to the cemetery and she paused to say hello to her neighbor. The neighbor asked, “How are you?”
My aunt replied: “Not good at all. Today is Marie’s birthday.”
The neighbor: “Aren’t you over that yet? How long has it been?”
I’m not quite sure what my aunt said. She is a polite woman who was probably too shocked and in pain to say anything.
My aunt’s other ‘favorite’ was: “God only gives you as much as you can handle.” Her succinct reply is: “He’s wrong, I can’t handle this.”
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about grief is that it ends; that you should work towards closure, moving on, or getting over it. That rarely happens.
When someone who you love or care about dies you’re given a weight. In the beginning that weight feels so heavy. You drop it a lot, stumble over it, sometimes you need others to help you carry it. As time goes by, you develop grief muscles. It gets easier to carry but it never goes away.
There are a lot of grief theories out there. There are stages (originally based on the stages of dying but reworked for grief), there are tasks, there are processes. There are theories about complicated grief, traumatic grief and distorted grief (and that’s not the entire list).
And in the end, it seems that what is an elemental and ubiquitous human experience is almost impossible to generalize. What worked for my aunt might not work for someone else. It might help someone to hear that God only gives them as much as they can handle. It might help them dig into their faith more and use it to help them get through the grief.
Another misconception is about denial and some feel that denial is a stage, and it can be. However, denial is better explained as a defense mechanism and it is an understandable one. Most don’t want to believe that their loved one is really gone.
Denial is elusive and hard to spot. Someone might say “of course I know they are dead” but actually might speak in other ways and exhibit behaviors that illustrate the denial is there and it is making it difficult for them to process their grief.
You shouldn’t force the abandonment of denial. It is protective sometimes and needs to be managed gently. Of course a parent doesn’t want to say that their child is dead and buried in a cemetery or their ashes are scattered at a lake. They want to pretend they are on a trip, or will be back soon. It’s understandable and needs to be challenged very gently (if at all).
Like everything in grief, it takes time.
The year of grief is another misconception. Grief does not have a time table. Some say the second year is actually harder than the first. Others can resolve the most intense phase of grief within a year and feel better after that first anniversary. It all depends on the person, their mental health, ability to regulate their emotions, their support system, the relationship they had with the deceased; I could keep going.
It just depends.